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16 Confusing Words That Even Intellectuals Get Wrong

Why do words that look so similar often mean diametrically opposite things? This is not a question of etymology, it’s a complaint. And surely, we aren’t the only ones puzzled by the fact that switching up a single letter can make your entire statement turn on its head. That’s so bemusing! Or was it amusing? Find out the difference between these two and 15 other difficult word pairs, and don’t let them confuse you ever again.

1. Hardy and hearty

Confusing Words cactus

When something or someone is described as hardy, it means that they can withstand harsh conditions and hardships. It’s often used as a synonym for tough. For example, cacti are hardy plants because they can survive in both extreme heat and cold. The word hearty, on the other hand, comes from the word heart, and it refers to a meal (or sometimes a person) that is wholesome, nourishing, and abundant - like a filling bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, yum!

2. Uninterested and disinterested

Most people use these two words interchangeably. However, they don’t mean the same thing. When someone is uninterested, it means that they are bored, apathetic, or indifferent towards a certain subject. Disinterested, on the other hand, means that a person is unbiased and doesn’t pursue any personal gains in a particular matter. To illustrate the difference, a judge should be disinterested but not uninterested in a case they’re hearing.

Related Article: 20 Words That Are Often Mistaken For Synonyms

3. Bemused and amused

The second word of the two is the more widely used one, and it’s also the one with a far more positive connotation. When someone is amused, this means that they’re entertained and pleased by something. A person who describes themselves as bemused, on the other hand, is utterly confused or puzzled by a situation. A good movie should be amusing, but certainly not bemusing.

4. Torturous and tortuous

Confusing Words staircase

When something is extremely unpleasant or painful, it’s torturous. When you drop the ‘R’ from the middle of the word, you get the word tortuous, an adjective that expresses something complicated or convoluted, like a tortuous path to describe a winding road.

5. Ensure and insure

The problem with these two words is that they’re not only written almost identically but they also sound alike. What’s more, both words have something to do with pledges. But there is a way to memorize the difference. Ensure is general; it refers to the guarantee or making certain that something happens. Insure has a much narrower meaning - to provide or obtain an insurance policy.

6. Reign and rein

Confusing Words horse

Have you ever written the phrase free rein as free reign? If so, you’re not alone; it’s a very common mistake. That being said, the correct version of the phrase is free rein, and it means "unrestricted liberty of action or decision." The word rein here refers to the leather or fabric strap that is either tightened or loosened to direct a horse. Hence, when you have free rein, no one is controlling you.

Reign means something different altogether - a period of time when an authority figure - usually a king or queen - is in power. Note that this word has a ‘G’ because it’s etymologically related to the word regal. This is a good way to remember the difference between these two otherwise rather similar words.

6. Invariable and invariably

In some cases, using an adverb derived from an adjective is not as straightforward as one would expect, so be careful. This is exactly the case with invariably - an adverb that means that something will occur on every occasion, always. Confusingly, the adjective invariable can either mean that something is frequent or that it is incapable of change, like “an invariable daily routine,” a routine that remains the same.

7. Horde and hoard

These two are a bit easier to distinguish than some of the other words on this list. That’s because the word hoard is usually used as a verb, whereas horde is always used as a noun. When someone hoards something, they tend to collect and covet it in a secure stash. This type of person can be referred to as a hoarder, especially if they collect a massive quantity of said items. 

A horde also refers to an accumulation of something, but this something can only be people. The term originated to describe Turkic and Mongol peoples who lived a nomadic lifestyle and always moved in big crowds, or hordes. Today, however, the term lost its historical connotation, and you can certainly say something like, “Hordes of tourists visit the museum every year.”

8. Discrete and discreet

Confusing Words close door for privacy

When you want to retain your privacy, does that make you a discreet or a discrete individual? This one’s pretty tough even for intellectuals, so read carefully. The word discreet (with the E's inside) means something is private or modest. But the moment the letter "E" travels to the end of the word - forming discrete - it becomes a synonym of distinct, separate, or divided. For example, in the sentence, “The book was divided into discrete sections,” discrete means "separate" and not "private."

9. Flaunt and flout

Do you mean to talk about someone breaking the law or someone who is showing off? Because saying that your new neighbor keeps “flouting his new fancy car” just doesn’t hold together. The verb flout means that someone is defying a law, convention, or agreement of sorts, whereas flaunting describes a person who is bragging or showing off in public.

Related Article: 15 Pictures That Illustrate Grammatical Conundrums


10. Loathe and loath

Here’s another tough pair of words. The adjective loath describes someone reluctant, whereas to loathe, a verb, means to hate or despise. And yes, this means that you can say something like, “I’m too loath to do the chores I loathe.” Did you manage to wrap your head around that one, or would you like a translation? Here’s one, just in case. It means that you’re unwilling to do the chores you hate.

11. Allusion and illusion

Confusing Words optical illusion

Most of us know what an illusion is - it’s anything misleading, false, or deceptive parodying reality, especially when it’s an image. And to those who think that allusion is a typo of the word illusion, know that it’s not. But we’ll excuse your mistake since the term is rather niche.

In literary analysis, allusion is when an author uses some known character name, word, or metaphor from a known literary work. In other words, it’s a reference to another author. For example, if I were to write a poem about the characters Romeo and Juliet, we’d all understand that I’m alluding to the famous Shakespeare characters.

12. Faze and phase

In most cases, you can safely use phase and you won’t be mistaken. But the word faze isn’t necessarily a spelling mistake. It can be a verb that roughly means “to disturb” or “to bother someone.” In most cases, the word faze is used with a word of negation, such as doesn’t, isn’t, and the like. Here’s an example sentence to illustrate this: “Don't get fazed by tough or confusing English words! Speaking your language well is worth the effort.”

13. Gamut and gauntlet

If you think that both “run the gamut” and “run the gauntlet” sound correct to you, you’re absolutely right! Do keep in mind, however, that these phrases mean two different things. Running the gamut means that something encompasses the entire range of possibilities, as in the sentence, “His emotions ran the gamut from joy to tears in a split second.”

Ruining the gauntlet, on the other hand, refers to an ancient punishment where the guilty person was running between two rows of people who were hitting him or her. Pretty grim, we know, but hopefully, it will help you memorize the difference in meaning.

14. Complement and compliment

Confusing Words couple on a date

The flattering words you say to your date are compliments, with an "I." But when you want to impress that special someone by saying that the cheese and wine really go well together, you’d want to say that the creaminess of the cheese complements the fruity notes in the wine. Hence, when something completes or makes something else perfect, it complements it.

15. Pour and pore

When a person is carefully examining something, for example, a document, he or she pores over it. It essentially means “to read or study something with great attention.” But if you were to pour something over the document, like some hot coffee, that could ruin it and certainly render the document illegible.

16. Effect and affect

This last pair of verbs is my personal pet peeve, and I see and hear people use them wrong all the time. The word effect is a noun, and it’s a synonym for result or influence. This effect can either be negative or positive. Affect is a verb that denotes a profoundly negative influence of one thing on another. Here’s an easy example: “Smoking affects the lungs.”

H/T: Mental Floss, Merriam-Webster

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